- Holy shit! (great news)
- Hayek’s rapid rise to stardom | misunderstanding Hayek
- great write-up on Catalonia | a philosophical case for secession
- if colonialism was the apocalypse, what comes next? | should UNM replace its seal?
- do trees fall in cyberspace? | how to use Facebook better
- a pretty shallow deep throat | vulvæ in pornography and culture
Yesterday, the Catalan government has overwelmingly voted for independence from Spain and to establish an independent republic. 70 were in favour, 10 were against, and 2 votes were blank. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the central governments of Spain and many other countries. Nonetheless, the Catalan case may inspire the other independence movements in Europe.
In this post I’d like to provide a philosophical case for the ethical right of secession based on a libertarian perspective of self-ownership. My argument is exclusively theoretical, although a discussion on how secession could be achieved practically would be interesting as well. I may save that for a post in the future.
Below, you can find a map of other places in Europe with strong secessionist movements:
Structure of my argument
My argument is deductive and runs as follows:
- People have the right of self-ownership in accordance with the non-aggression principle, and based on the natural rights philosophy put forward by the political philosopher Murray Rothbard;
- If people have the right of self-ownership, they also have the right of voluntary association, voluntary formation of communities, and the right to choose their own leaders;
- Sometimes the state that the individual belongs to, violates the rights of the individual to the extent that the individual does not feel associated with it anymore;
- Under such circumstances the individual may perceive the state as an unacceptable aggressor, and he is justified to revolt by separating himself from the state. He can form communal associations to secede as a new political unit;
- There is no limit to secession. Provinces have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household.
The right of self-ownership and property rights
In For a New Liberty (1973), Murray Rothbard deduces natural law from the essential nature of human beings. He writes that it is in man’s nature to use his mind in order to select values, ends and the means to attain these ends so that he can “act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life”. He furthermore contends that it is absolutely “antihuman” to interfere violently with a man’s “learning and choices” as “it violates the natural law of man’s needs”. Therefore, man’s nature should be protected through his right of self-ownership. This right asserts that man has the absolute right to “own” his body and “to control that body free of coercive interferences”. This right includes the practice of such essential activities as thinking, learning, valuing, and choosing ends and means without any coercion, since such activities are necessary for the enhancement of man’s life.
From this natural right follows the right to do anything with one’s body, including the right to form free associations and communities, and the right not to be violated in one’s self-ownership. Thus, one has the right to associate oneself with the leader of one’s choice, but not the right to impose a leader unto someone else. Likewise, people should be free to join and to leave communities voluntarily.
In addition to the right of free association, people also have property rights. Rothbardian property rights are directly derived from self-ownership rights, and are based on the Lockean homesteading theory. It states that since man owns his person, he owns his labour, and therefore he also owns the fruits thereof. John Locke (1689) has put homesteading theory in the following way:
… every man has a property in his own person. … The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state of nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
Given that man has the right of self-ownership, and that he must employ natural objects for his survival, then the sculptor has the right to own the product he has made through the mixing of his labour. In other words, by producing something with one’s energy through the utilization of unowned nature, one has, as Rothbard calls it, “placed the stamp of his person upon the raw material”. One therefore rightfully owns the product. Any violation of self-ownership and property rights should hence be regarded as an act of aggression.
The state is nonetheless a social institution that has historically interfered most often with people’s self-ownership and property rights. Max Weber has recognized it as an institution with a territorial monopoly of compulsion in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1919). Hoppe, in Democracy – the God that failed (2001), asserts that every government will use this monopoly to exploit its citizens in order to increase its wealth and income.
“Hence every government should be expected to have an inherent tendency toward growth”. (Hoppe)
State exploitation happens in the form of expropriation, taxation, and regulation of private property owners. A state at best respects the rights of individual sovereignty and private property, but because its functioning is dependent on the expropriation of its citizens’ wealth there is a natural conflict between the state and its citizens. According to Franz Oppenheimer (1908), the state can impossibly finance itself without its productive citizens. It can only take that what has already been produced, and therefore it can only exist as a result of the “economic means”. However, this confiscation often involves state violence and aggression as nearly no one is willing to give up on his property voluntarily.
Under such circumstances, it is understandable that conflicts may arise between citizens and the state; sometimes resulting in citizens’ feelings of dissociation from their governments.
Frédérik Bastiat maintains in The Law (1850) that if everyone has the right to “his person, his liberty, and his property”, then
“a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense.”
Following Bastiat’s reasoning, I believe that citizens who feel dissociated can then revolt and opt for secession as a form of self-defense against state aggression on their self-ownership and property. Any state that does not recognize its citizens’ rights of secession does not sufficiently recognize the sovereignty of its people. Secession is a powerful means of political action to show the people’s discontent with their leaders. If secession would be impermissible, then the people who want to disassociate themselves from the state have the following three options:
(1) continue living under the oppressive state rule;
or (2) revolt against the state;
or (3) emigrate to another state.
By doing (1), the people continue living under perpetual state aggression, and their sovereignty is continually violated.
If the people choose option (2), then there will be severe and costly consequences which can involve war and destruction of private property. In addition, there are also no guarantees that the revolt against the state will be successful. For these two reasons, this option seems to most secessionists to be the least preferable of the three.
The people can alternatively choose (3) and emigrate to another state. This alternative is often used as an argument against secession under the presumption that those who are unhappy within one particular state, should simply emigrate. However, the cost of emigration can be so significantly high that it is unfeasible. One has for example the costs of finding information on the procedure of emigration, becoming accepted by the other state, finding a new workplace etc… The state can also exert barriers of emigration through tedious bureaucratic processes and passport controls, which makes emigration even more unattractive.
Who are morally justified to secede?
Following man’s right of free association, the answer should be: anyone, as long as it happens on a voluntary basis. Even though most secessionist movements are built on a common ethnicity or common cultural heritage, such precepts are not necessary to justify secession. Moreover, secessionists should not be prescribed any form of social organization as they should be free to choose their own form of government. This means that a multitude of social organizations are possible, including those that are currently non-existent. By being epistemologically modest of what governmental form is best, communities are allowed to experiment and find their own form of government. This will eventually add to our understanding of human social organizations.
Lastly, it is important to note that if secession is ethical, ultimately based on the principle of self-ownership, then it follows that the individual has the right to secede as well.
This right cannot be exclusively granted to groups, because only individuals can have ownership of their own bodies. Self-ownership cannot be shared, just like the mind cannot be shared. The mind is an attribute, inherent only to individuals, and collectives only derive their rights from the rights of their individual members. Therefore the right of self-ownership must necessarily imply the right to practice unlimited secession.
As Rothbard would assert, provinces should have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household. This logical consequence is anarchism.
In setting forward a natural rights defense of self-ownership, I have concluded that individuals have the right to free association and property rights. Unfortunately, states sometimes violate these rights to the extent that its people do not want to be associated with their state anymore. Under such circumstances they retain the right to secede. Secession should however not only be limited to communities. Single individuals also bear the right to secede, since only individuals can possess self-ownership, and since groups can only derive their rights from its individual members.
- oil and Kurdistan
- after Raqqa, Iraq’s army turns on Kurdistan
- “There has been a common and unfortunate tendency among many analysts and policy makers to underestimate the strength of Iraqi nationalism”
- separatist movements in Europe don’t actually want independence
- GREAT topic, but poor methodology, poor theory, poor use of data, and bad faith
- meh (try this book review instead)
- Law without the State [pdf]
- Interview with a secessionist
- Ducking questions about capitalism
- The perverse seductiveness of Fernando Pessoa
- “Yet in this simple task, a doffer in the USA doffed 6 times as much per hour as an adult Indian doffer.”
- Conflicted thoughts on women in medicine
- The Devil You Know vs The Market For Lemons (car problems)
The historically great city-state of Venice is contemplating independence from Italy. “Over two million residents,” nearly half of the total population, “of the Veneto region took part in the week-long survey, with 89 percent voting in favour of independence from Italy.” The Indipendenza Veneta party believes that the centralized Italian government is unable “to stamp out corruption, protect its citizens from a damaging recession and plug waste in the poorer south.” Venice joins Catalonia and, for better or worse, Crimea this year in considering breaking away from it’s central government. Catalonia’s request for an independence referendum denied by the Spanish prime minister while we all know how long Crimean independence lasted. All is not lost however.
These types of referendum must be celebrated by libertarians throughout the world. The further decentralization of governments is a goal that can directly lead to a freer, more libertarian society and will serve as a siphon weakening governments worldwide. To quote, as I do so often, the great Murray Rothbard:
“Once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as in a state of impermissible ‘anarchy’, why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighbourhood? Each block? Each house? Each person?”
Why not indeed.
The most basic rule of schoolyard behavior is this: Don’t challenge the school bully if your knees are buckling under you. Mr Obama keeps ignoring the rule, with predictable results: One tyrant, one despot after another receives his confirmation that the USA is no dangerous, no matter what you do. Thinking the US in not dangerous is very dangerous for the world. I keep challenging the ones and the others, including mainstream libertarians, to say what will, or should replace the pax americana that has given us relative peace since 1945. No one cares to answer.
This introduction, not by way of beginning to argue that the US should have gone to war over Crimea. I don’t believe it should have; I don’t even think the US should have risked war ever so little because of Crimea. I think rather that Mr Obama should have been absent, with a pass for the nurse’s office, for example. Neither am I being pathetically “realistic,” here. Mine is a principled position. Let me explain.
Anyone who has any libertarian fiber but who maintains his criticality should be instinctively in favor of secessions. Two reasons.
First if being governed is an assault on individual liberty, being governed by those who are unlike you in some fundamental way is a doubly liberticide. Fundamental differences include, but are not limited to, language. That’s because your language largely determines the way you see the world and your sensitivities, what’s important to you as a person. Governors who have different beliefs, who operate on the basis of different assumptions, who nurture different dislikes than you are bound to commit slow rape on you every day of your life. That’s true even if they harbor zero hostile intention toward you. And that’s unless you volunteer, of course, as many immigrants like me – do.
I wish good luck to the Catalan independentists and to the Scottish autonomists. I would even if you proved to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that powerful economic interests undergirth their efforts. It’s true that Catalonia is more prosperous than the rest of Spain. It does not prevent Catalans from feelings how they do. They probably would, if they were less prosperous. I don’t know if the Scots would like to split from the UK absent North Sea oil but, if they do, they do, and that’s it. I believe, of course, that the Tibetans have had a solid claim for secession for all the time they have been under Chinese rule. (And, yes, it may well be that the objective quality of their lives has improved under Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.)
Am I saying that it’s better to be oppressed by those you think of as your kin?
The Crimean population overwhelmingly wanted secession from Ukraine. Without the presence of Russian guns, the referendum would have been, maybe, 76 % in favor rather than 96%. The final result would have been the same. It’s not difficult to entertain this double thought: Putin is a gangster and the Crimeans would rather be Russian citizens.
Speaking of Putin: The fact that he used exactly the same arguments as Hitler in 1939 does not logically imply that he did something like dismantling and gobbling up independent Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and the Slovaks, were not volunteers the way most Crimeans are. The annexation of Crimea by Russia changes little to all this. (See below.) Crimeans did not feel Ukrainian, overall and they were tired of being very poor under the Ukraine. They would rather be moderately poor as Russians. It’s not hard to believe either.
The second reason for libertarians to favor secession instinctively is that rational people cannot treat the boundaries of nation-states as if they were sacred, the way most governments pretend to do. At best, one could argue that that fiction contributes to world stability. (I doubt it but it’s not a stupid position.) Rather, the borders of existing nation-states are often the result of centuries of sometimes successful wars (France), or of recent shameless robbery of one’s neighbors (the US), or of colonial bureaucratic insouciance (Iraq). In some cases, the tracing of boundaries looks like a joke: Take for example the long penis-like extension of Afghanistan into China in the eastern part of the former country. The mapmaker, probably a junior English officer must have chuckled with relief in his loneliness.
National boundaries may be useful or even indispensable (to control entry, of undesirables, for example) that makes them a necessity, or a necessary evil. Nothing confers on them a status above critical thinking: Sometimes, the violation of existing borders should not be countenanced; sometimes, such violation deserves only a shrug.
Note with respect to the present annexation of Crimea by Russia following this secession, I am saying nothing about the ensuing strengthening of the Russian kleptocracy. The encouragement of tyrants inherent in the Putin impunity also belongs in another essay.
The fact is that the prevention of secession has always produced tons of mischief, most of it violent, much of it an affront to basic human decency.
Hitler used the existence of a sizable German minority in a strategically important part of Czechoslovakia, of smaller Hungarians-speaking and of Ukrainian-speaking smaller minorities elsewhere to start World War II. It’s possible, even likely that Hitler would have used another excuse absent this one. But linguistic minority aspirations gave a cover of semi-legitimacy to his aggressive action. Without such legitimacy, it is quite conceivable that British and French public opinions would have demanded that Hitler be stopped while it was still possible. (The whole sorry story of Western passivity and vacillation in 1938-39 is recounted in minute, hour-by hour detail in William Shirer’ s classic: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.)
In more recent times, we witnessed violent and massive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo , the three-year long siege of a large city one hour flight from Rome, Sarajevo, and the starvation and daily bombing of its civilian population, and the massacre of thousands of men and boys, also in Bosnia. Most of these horrors could have been avoided by finely wrought enough secessions, even at county level if necessary.
A contrario examples abound of the healthful, virtuous nature of secession as a solution to intercommunal tensions. Some come from the most unlikely places.
The dissolution of Czechoslovakia – a radical form of secession – in 1993 was so peaceful that it went almost unperceived . The resulting Czech and Slovak Republics have since continued separately on their fairly prosperous paths. They maintain sound relationships as good neighbors (as very good neighbors, more or less like the US and Canada).
Paradoxically, today’s Iraq offers a striking example of the virtuousness of secession. The world follows with a tired eye Iraqi Arabs eviscerating each other along communal lines. That is, the Sunni Muslim Arabs there and the Shiite Muslim Arabs there are slaughtering each other every day, same as when the presence of Americans was said to cause all the murderous civil strife. Many Sunnis and many Shiites consider themselves members of existentially different groups. They do so for reasons that are probably difficult for Westerners to understand (except those who remember the Wars of Religion in Europe, of course, between 1520 and 1648.) It matters not; as far as they are concerned, those are reasons worth killing and dying for. Keeping them bottled up together, forced co-habitation, is not likely to attenuate these sentiments. (Think of ill-matched college roommates.)
In the meantime, you hardly ever hear of the Northern third of the same country, bloodied Iraq. I refer to “Kurdistan,” still formally a part of the Iraqi republic. Kurdistan, which does not exist officially, is people mostly by Kurds, a group with a distinctive language unrelated to Arabic. They comprise both Sunnis and Shiites. As far as the facts on the ground are concerned, Iraqi “Kurdistan” has achieved secession from its bloodied mother country. No shot was fired in spite of the quick-trigger violence of the Middle-East. The Kurdish area is so prosperous and so peaceful that others go there on vacation. The vacationers are first of all, Arabs from other parts of Iraq seeking relief from incessant violence in their part of the country. Second, Turks are crossing their southern border in increasing numbers for the same purpose . (May of those Turkish tourists are probably themselves ethnic Kurds.)
And we should not lose track of the fact that the 25 years of Saddam tyranny over all of Iraq, accompanied by internal massacres and two wars he started deliberately found what legitimacy it possessed in the supposedly sacred duty to keep Iraq unified. (Keep in mind that the Saddamite regime utterly lacked traditional legitimacy and religious legitimacy, or the political legitimacy that comes from winning fair elections, or any other source of legitimacy.)
Had Iraq broken up earlier into a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shiite south, the world and, especially, the martyred Iraqi people, would have been spared enormous misery. It’s not too late to achieve this end.
I am speculating that many people’s unexamined attachment to the general concept of national border harks back to an earlier time, a time when they were coterminous with economic boundaries and with information boundaries. Not long ago, French citizens ate almost only French food, they wore only French-made clothing (there was even a lively traffic in illegal, smuggled blue jeans), and heard and read only news originating in France in French. All was produced almost entirely with French capital. National boundaries were then the very containers of our existence defined in the most concrete ways. None of this is true anymore for most countries. Borders are porous to most things including words (if not yet to people). Many people are thus ready to fight for a reality that disappeared quite a while ago.
A major more or less unintended effect of this pursuit of ghosts is that it easily turns to bloodshed, domestic and international. So, many Spaniard are resisting the threatened secession of Catalonia as if it would become a catastrophe of sorts for them. There is still little realization that nations that perceived themselves as homogeneous (for whatever reason) are spared major conflicts, including civil conflict. Homogeneous Denmark, with a similar level of development, is more peaceful than bi-community (linguistic communities) Belgium. Either a Walloon or a Flemish secession there would improve the lives of both Walloon and Fleming.
Secession is usually a good thing overall, for peace, and for individual liberties. Let them go and they will lose the ability to stab you in your own kitchen with your own kitchen knife. They may even become your friends, after a while.
N.B. I still have not heard anyone, or heard of anyone saying that he regretted voting for Obama. Amazing!
While I’m on the topic of secession, I thought I’d point readers to the upcoming vote in Catalonia to see if they want to secede from Spain. Central to my arguments for secession is the role that new states would have within a broader free trade zone (like the U.S. or the E.U.). For Catalonia, the British paper Telegraph reports:
Catalonia wants to collect its own taxes, to control how they are spent and it seems prepared to break away from Spain to do so.
But with a clear road map yet to be outlined the process of separating from Spain promises to be burdened with hurdles.
While Catalans prize their role as citizens of Europe, EU officials have warned that membership of the union won’t be automatic. Instead Catalonia would have to gain admission, joining the queue of a list of new European nations seeking membership, and the process would likely be blocked by a vengeful Spain.
This is key to not only Catalonia’s success, but also the success of secessionist movements everywhere. If regions within current states want independence, they have to be sure to not confuse political independence with economic independence. The latter will only lead to poverty. I highlight this point because new states formed during the beginning of the post-colonial revolution of the 60’s and 70s thought that economic independence was the key to liberty. How wrong they were. Continue reading